Friday, January 17, 2014

Building Our Future...One Student Blogger at a Time

Blogging in the Classroom
A Fresh Approach

               Are you ever surprised by the small crumble of information you remember and yet in the same moment of brilliance can't recall why you are at the grocery store? Almost a year ago I read a short piece on a math teacher in Oregon who was committed to supporting and transforming his students into independent learners who self-monitor and reflect for the value of learning opposed to a grade. We're talking High School students! Obviously, a personal connection had been sparked because I vividly remembered the article and tracked Daniel down this past December.

               Today's blog features Daniel O'Neill, a passionate, dedicated, and innovative high school math teacher currently teaching Pre-Algebra through Algebra II at Sisters High School in Central Oregon. Daniel has been teaching for eight years, and has discovered/ is creating some of the trade secrets for motivated and self-regulated learners.  Daniel generously shared his thinking with me.  I am certain you will be just as inspired by his story as I am.  Since Daniel's teaching IQ is so strong, I will only share a portion of our interview today--students' blogging to articulate their learning and their growing understanding of themselves as learners.  Enjoy Part 1. 

Here is Daniel's standing assignment as you click and enter one of the classes' blog:    
 "Welcome to the reflections blog!  Please reflect after each section of learning has taken place.  In your reflections you will explain what you have learned and how it makes sense, or doesn't make sense, to you.  You will also describe what you are learning about yourself as a learner.  What strengths and weaknesses do you have? What strategies work well for you?  What will you need to do in order to learn best? I encourage you to read other students reflections.  Comment on great reflections.  Help each other out if you see that someone is misunderstanding something."            

"Nerd Party"

               In Daniel's words, "It is fun to start out the year on the first day of school by telling the students there will be a quiz the next day and they need to memorize the 14 sets of 3 letters." 
(If you need help decoding the info is at the end of the blog :)

Our Interview

Your student blog is great.  How did you get the idea? How long have you been doing it?  Do all students willingly participate? 

               I used to ask my students to write reflections.  They reflected about content, learning style, and their emotional response.  If our class was having a tough time or a great time with regard to class culture, they would reflect about that too.  I want it to be a genuine experience, for them to reflect for what they get out of it not for points.  I used to randomly call on students to read their latest reflection to the class and we’d have a class discussion about what we heard.  That caused rich discussion and provided a little bit of social accountability.  If a student said that they did not write a reflection, I’d say “Okay, then reflect now”.  After reading an individual reflection and thinking, “Wow, I wish everyone could read this” for the fiftieth time, I realized that everyone can read and learn from one another's reflections!!!  The reflection blog was born.  I created a Google site that night. 

How long have you been doing it?
               The blog was created early last year.  Reflecting can be powerful and can be done from a variety of perspectives.  I do not want to tell the students exactly how to reflect.  I do not want them to think about what I want while reflecting.  I certainly don’t want them to fall in to the all too common perspective of doing it for points.  So, I do not award points for reflecting on the blog.  They get learning out of it.  I ask them to reflect on content, process, learning style, emotional experience, class culture, and anything else.  If a student is struggling with something in particular, I might ask them to reflect on something related.  For example, I had a student who was struggling to find motivation.  I asked him to reflect about what the “perfect student” was in his mind.  He posted his reflection in the algebra 2B.  In his reflection, he was basically describing the student he wanted to be.  He found motivation.  There was a fairly drastic change in his approach to the class after that. 
               Another way I motivate the students to reflect is to ask them to consider how many times they have “learned” things in past math classes only to totally forget them soon after.  How many times have they earned a B or an A in a class, then a month after the class was over they couldn’t even describe what they had learned.  In my experience, all students can relate.  So why are they doing their work?  Who are they doing it for if they are not retaining it for themselves?  The answer is that they are doing their work to please their teachers, parents, and admissions officers.  This is a very sad situation.   

               In the years when students are transitioning from children to adults, they are developing the habit of spending their energy thinking about appeasing other people.  No wonder we have so many adults who have a hard time finding happiness, they have fallen out of the habit of thinking about what they want for themselves.  So, I ask the students if they think that being able to clearly articulate the concepts in a way that another person can understand would increase the likelihood of retention.  Their answer is yes.  I ask them if their retention would increase if they relate what they are learning to their own past experiences.  Yes.  Would focusing on awareness of their emotional response to struggle and success increase the likelihood of attaining more effective emotional responses to struggle and success?  Yes.  So, I motivate the students to reflect by sharing with them what they have to gain from reflecting.   

               Do they all do it? NO.  I believe that the culture of education we have has deeply engrained many students into the perspective of only doing things for points.  I’ll admit that I do get tempted to threaten and manipulate the students into reflecting by holding points over their heads.  I was raised in that system too.  When I catch myself having those thoughts, I quickly remind myself that by doing that I would be abandoning my original goal.  

Danielle Rudinsky writing her blog at SHS
An interesting story happened last year when a student, Danielle Rudinsky, went to Europe for three weeks.  She was one of the top students and was determined to stay that way.  I let her know what content she would be missing, let her know what the assignments would be, and informed her of some additional online resources as well as pointed out the sections from the book.  When she came back, I handed her the unit test she missed on rational and radical functions.  I was nervous for her.  She aced the test. Soon after I found out that she did not open her book the whole time she was in Europe.  She read the reflections that her peers wrote and learned the content to a deep level. I was amazed.  That says a lot about Dani,  her classmates, and the power of the reflection blog. 

How much time do you spend reading and responding to your students?

               It does take time and I do have to make it a priority.  I probably spend about 30 minutes to 45 minutes reading and responding to reflections after a day when many students reflect.  With all of the tasks teachers have to do, we often feel overwhelmed.  I believe we feel overwhelmed when we have to do tasks that don’t really impact student learning but we have to do them anyway.  We just want to put our focus, time, and energy into activities that impact student learning. So, when I engage in activities that impact student learning, I become more calm even though it takes energy.

               Responding to reflections is awesome because my energy and time are LEVERAGED.  I respond to an individual student, which is good for the student, but other students read the response as well.  A student might read one of my responses two weeks later.  It also creates a culture in some classes where students begin responding to each others' reflections regularly.  When that happens, I feel like I invested a little bit of money into just the right stock.

               So, it does take time and energy but it is also one of the things I really look forward to each day.  I used to start up my computer in the morning with a slight feeling of apprehension about what emails I might open and the tasks that will follow.  Now I start up my computer each morning excited to engage in my student’s reflections.

So...What Does this Look Like?
Samples of Students' Reflections

"Today's lesson was ok. I have been feeling a little lost lately though. I know that I know how to factor using grouping, distributing, sum of squares, and now sum of cubes. I know that I know how to solve using ZPP. But for some reason on the examples today I read the problem and didnt know how to start. After mr. Oneill took us through the reasoning and the first step I could easily finish it out on my own. I guess that I'm thinking more about what I don't know that what I do when it comes to these types of problems. I need to start breaking it down because I know it should be easy stuff by now. Sometimes I fell like as a learner I think too much about the details or over think them. Which are extremely important, but sometimes that takes away from me being able to get a problem right. I definitely have a few areas to improve on throughout this unit."

Here is Daniel's reply:

"Yes. Nice insight. I think your struggle is coming from trying to remember how to solve equations that look like the equation you happen to be looking at in the moment. Instead of focusing so much on the equation you are looking at, first think about what solving techniques you know (you could do this without looking at any equation). After thinking about the process you know, then look at the specific equation and see if one of your techniques applies. After each step, look at the equation as a new problem. You, along with a bunch of other great students, are struggling for the first time. It is great! This is an opportunity to learn how to struggle in a positive way. The stronger you are, the more you'll allow yourself to struggle. I can't wait to see how much you develop as a thinker over the next two months."

Another student's blog entry:

"I have tried to reflect as much as possible and use the reflection blog to its fullest. Algebra 2a was the point where I first started to reflect and realize how much it was helping me. It was a better way to review the concepts and have nothing there to help you out except your understanding. It was cool to pin point exactly what you knew, and what you didn’t. And when we moved the reflecting to the blog, it was even easier to use. Before writing everything out was always kind of a pain. It was annoying to write your hand off and only look down to see a paragraph or two. The average reflection wasn’t very long and it took awhile to write all our ideas on paper so I don’t know about everyone else but I was shortchanging myself. After that changed, I changed. I got really into typing out how I feel and not only reflecting on concepts but also learning styles, quizzes, test and stress levels. It was nice to just take a moment to take a step back and relax. I got really panicked at time with my grade and I used the blog also as a coping mechanism. Many of the lessons were challenging and I also used the blog to ask questions to my piers and Mr. O’Neill. That also helped my learning and I got great feedback from everyone and got to hear different ways to think about something at the same time. It has been awesome to use the blog, to understand, review and help each other.
I have come to rely on the blog quite a bit and it kept on becoming a larger priority in my schedule. I am so glad Oneill has helped set this up because it works! I plan to continue to blog and reflect in future classes and I have learned so much from this class in itself."

               Something we all know about exemplary teaching practices (like many art forms) 
"The show" or final product looks effortless, so incredibly easy. Has Daniel mastered the art of teaching?  With his continual questioning, natural ability to problem solve, and his determination to create a "learning for learning's sake" mindset in adolescents he is transforming how students see themselves. Daniel's class blog is successful because of the emotional and social foundation he has meticulously built with his students. Behind these student blogs is a culture and climate for thinking, the building of genuine relationships, and the establishing of mutual trust.  

               Learn more about this extraordinary teacher and how he created his classroom culture in early February. Thank you for sharing and thank you for caring, Daniel O'Neill. We need teachers like you.  If you have questions or seek additional information, Daniel can be reached at

               As always, thank you for stopping by and staying for the inspiration.  If I were still in the classroom, I would start a class blog without missing a beat. I have provided you with the tools in the resource section. Very best wishes for a Happy Saturday.

Additional Resources

How to Set Up a Classroom Blog--click here

10 Reasons Why Students Should Blog--click here 

 20 Reasons Why Should Students Should Blog--click here

*To Memorize Means Nothing Without Understanding  --This is the message. Look again and you will easily see it:)


  1. In the years when students are transitioning from children to adults, they are developing the habit of spending their energy thinking about appeasing other people. No wonder we have so many adults who have a hard time finding happiness, they have fallen out of the habit of thinking about what they want for themselves.
    I LOVED the guest blog and Daniel sounds like a jewel of a teacher. And I love the fact that a math teacher is not just giving out a million quizzes with number problems to solve. He is really encouraging deep thinking, as well as grit. The quote above is one that really resonated with ME. I have spent my whole life being somewhat of a people pleaser and/or appeasing other people. He makes such a good point because if we, as adults, are not happy, self-confident and independent thinkers, it sends a very negative message to everyone we come into contact with - be it family, friends, or co-workers, plus our own self esteem can take a major hit!

    1. Thank you for leaving a response Mary Ann. Yes, Daniel is a very special teacher. I can't help but think my math grades would have been a heck of a lot better if he had been my teacher. Stay with us, Daniel will be back in February discussing the language we use as teachers that can have profound effects on our students' social and emotional development.

  2. Its pleasure to read such great post.

  3. Glad you enjoyed David. Daniel will be back to share more on Feb 1st.

  4. Great write-up! Writing is a talent, and it must not be wasted. As with everything that we had been entrusted, we should

    let it grow and share it with the world.> self development plan